It’s a Thursday, the first time that Tony walks into Steve’s tattoo parlor. Steve is behind the counter, passing the time between appointments by filling his sketchbook with new designs and reworks of older ones. He glances up at the chime on the door and has a welcome greeting on the tip of his tongue that dies at the sight of him.
He’s young, and if Steve had to guess he’s probably never been in a tattoo parlor before today, if the nervous look is anything to go by. His hair is dark and messy, falling in every direction as he takes a knitted hat off of his head and stuffs it in his pocket, while wide brown eyes look around at the designs on the walls.
Steve stares a touch longer than he should before clearing his throat and finally saying hello. “Hi, do you have an appointment?”
He knows the answer already, given the fact that he’s the only artist in today and his next appointment isn’t for two more hours, but he asks anyway.
“Oh, uh, no, I don’t,” he says, walking toward the counter. His back has straightened, like he’s trying to appear more confident than his face is showing. “Do I need one?”
“Depends on what you were looking to get.”
The guy pushes back the right sleeve of his jacket, revealing one pale wrist. “I just wanted four straight lines here.” He runs the tip of his finger horizontally along his skin, about two inches in length, then moves down three times to make the four parallel lines.
“Just four lines?” Steve confirms, careful to leave out anything in his tone that could sound like he’s passing judgment. It wouldn’t be the first time someone got upset that they thought he hated their idea, even though he doesn’t quite understand this one enough to make a judgment, anyway.
“Yeah, in black.”
Steve stands from his seat, putting his sketchbook aside and reaching for the forms every client has to fill out. He passes his pencil and the clipboard over to the guy and says, “Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes for that. Just need your ID.”
He was ready with his ID, it seems, pulling it straight from his pocket rather than a wallet. Steve takes it over to the copy machine to scan it and looks at it just long enough to note the name and age. Tony Stark, 21 and, apparently, quite photogenic.
Something about the name is familiar, but Steve doesn’t give it a second thought. He meets new people here every day and quite a few of them seem familiar but actually aren’t.
He exchanges the ID for the finished paperwork, then steps out from behind the counter and gestures for Tony to follow him into his workspace in the back of the shop. Sketches cover three walls and the fourth was painted painstakingly by hand over the course of a few days in a graffiti style. Tony looks at it for a moment while Steve washes his hands and prepares some things.
“You can take a seat there and put your wrist on the table,” Steve says, and Tony follows the instruction.
He takes his time to get the lines perfectly spaced on Tony’s skin with a pen, conferring with Tony along the way to make sure they’re exactly what he wants. They’re fairly thin, and when he’s finished stenciling them, he runs the risk of asking, “So what’s the reason for this one?”
Tony’s cheeks pinken a bit, but he says, “I have a tendency to write things down on my arms, and my friends keep telling me that my skin isn’t a notebook.”
Steve looks down at the lines again, evenly spaced just like a college ruled notebook would be, and laughs. “So now your arm is a notebook.”
“Exactly,” Tony nods.
“You think it’s stupid,” Tony says, though not with any offense. More like it’s just a fact that he’s okay with.
Steve shakes his head while he prepares the ink and readies the tattoo gun. “No, I’ve seen stupid, trust me. This doesn’t even come close.”
“What’s the stupidest one you’ve ever done, then?”
“I’ve seen plenty of people get the names of people they’ve only been dating for a few months on themselves,” Steve says as he starts the tattoo gun. Tony flinches at the sound, and Steve is careful at the first press of it to his skin just in case Tony flinches again at the initial pain and moves his arm. He keeps talking as a distraction. “Quite a few of them wind up coming back for cover ups.”
“Do you ever say anything? You know, give them a warning.”
Steve laughs, “Definitely not. That’s what the waivers are for, so they can’t come back and demand a refund or a free cover up because they made a mistake. Now spelling errors, those I try to correct, but that’s also on the waivers to say it’s their own fault if they give me the text and it ends up being wrong.”
“So you’re saying I can’t get my money back if I hate this when I wake up tomorrow?” Tony jokes. “Do people actually try to do that?”
“Sometimes, yeah. They think we should have told them it was a bad idea.”
“Do they ever even ask for your opinion, or do they think you should have just voluntarily told them they’re stupid?”
“They ask occasionally.” Steve finishes the second line and pauses to wipe away the extra ink. “But I always tell every artist I train to be as evasive as possible about it, whether they like it or not. Tell them that the only thing that matters is if they’re happy with it. That kind of thing.”
Tony hums in consideration while Steve makes his way down the third line. “Why don’t you tell them if you like it?”
“Well, sometimes if the person comes here for more than one, you might really like the first one and tell them that. But if you hate the second one and try to be evasive, there’s a chance they’ll remember the first time and reach their own conclusion that you hate it,” Steve explains. “I learned that one the hard way.”
Tony raises his eyebrows, “Shit, really?”
Steve nods as he moves onto the fourth line. He wasn’t joking about it only taking a few minutes. “Wasn’t the best moment of my career, but it was a lesson learned, I guess.”
“So if I asked you for your honest opinion on this one, you wouldn’t give it?”
Steve wipes away the streaks of ink, checking the lines again for missed spots. Filling in one, he says, “Do you really care for the opinion of someone you met fifteen minutes ago?”
He looks up to find Tony smiling in amusement and has to look back down at his work quickly so it doesn’t distract him. His eyes are the kind that would be easy to fall into.
“I guess not,” Tony says. “Considering I don’t even know your name.”
Steve flushes a bit at having forgotten to introduce himself in the beginning. “It’s Steve.”
“I’m Tony, by the way.”
“Yeah, I know,” Steve says without thinking, and he can feel Tony tense up where he’s still touching his arm. “You gave me your license, remember? I read your name.”
The tension drains from his muscles instantly, and he sounds relieved as he says, “Oh, yeah. I guess I did do that.”
Steve gives him a reassuring smile while he applies a dab of ointment to the reddened skin of Tony’s wrist. He turns to quickly clean up his workstation, then pulls off his gloves with a snap.
“Alright,” he says, standing up from his chair. “That’s all set. I’ll give you instructions for keeping it clean over the next week up front.”
Tony follows behind him on their way back to the front of the parlor, moving his wrist back and forth to watch the lines shift with his skin. There’s a strange look on his face, and Steve knows from experience that it usually means one of two things.
“Instant regret or do you already want more?”
Tony laughs, “I’m thinking the next one should be just as practical. You know, keep a theme going. What do you think?”
“I think it might be a hard theme to keep up with, but I’d kind of like to see you try,” Steve says, walking behind the counter. “Just maybe try not to load up your skin too quickly. Save space for the future and all that.”
Tony leans against the counter, openly staring at Steve’s arms. Both of them have their fair share of tattoos already, even though Steve is only twenty seven. The right arm is covered from elbow to shoulder in various black and white flowers, all his own original drawings. The left is a little more eclectic. He doesn’t have a theme to it, other than things that mean something to him. There’s a constellation drawn out on his bicep for his mom and a few small symbols for his friends done in a line down his inner lower arm: a red star, ballet shoes, a set of wings, and an arrow.
“I’m not so sure you’ve taken your own advice on that.”
Steve grins, “Not true. I’ve still got my legs to work with.”
Tony raises his eyebrows, jutting his chin out to gesture at Steve’s chest. “Does that mean you’ve got a whole bunch under your shirt already?”
“Just a few,” Steve says. “Still quite a bit of real estate there, too.”
Tony nods, and his eyes are still on Steve’s chest, like he’s trying to see through the fabric of his t-shirt to see what they are. It makes him a bit self-conscious, feeling small under his gaze, and he redirects the conversation back to the professional.
Tony leaves a few minutes later, still admiring the lines on his wrist as he walks down the sidewalk, and Steve doesn’t notice until he’s already long gone that he left a tip worth double the cost of the tattoo itself.
Steve somewhat forgets about the interaction over the course of the next few weeks. His busy schedule keeps him from thinking about it, too wrapped up in designing new pieces, managing the day to day minutiae of the business, and dodging set up attempts from his well-meaning friends. He doesn’t really have the time to wonder when or if Tony will come back, though he does find his heart skipping beats sometimes when someone who looks a bit like him comes in. It takes only a few days to decide that’s a dangerous thing, and he throws himself even deeper into work.
It’s another weekday when Tony comes back, a few minutes after the parlor has opened for the day. Natasha is already with her first client, adding an eyebrow piercing to one of her regular’s ongoing collection, while Steve has a couple of free hours before his first for the day. He’s in the process of checking inventory when he hears the front door chime, and he sets down his clipboard to walk up front.
Tony’s hair is a wild mess again, sticking straight up in places, and the dark circles under his eyes are prominent. He looks like he could use a decent night of sleep, but he came here instead.
“You’re back soon,” Steve says.
Tony smiles, “Are you even surprised?”
“Not really. What’s the design for today?”
Tony steps further into the shop, coming to a stop about a foot in front of Steve. He holds up his left hand and traces down from the tip of his pinkie to his wrist. “Think you could put a ruler in centimeters there?”
Steve raises his eyebrows, the corner of his mouth quirking up in amusement. “Measure a lot of things in centimeters?”
“Pretty much daily, yeah,” Tony nods. He tilts his head to the side in thought, then laughs. “You know, I was thinking about it for my engineering projects, but now I’m thinking about what it’s going to be like on dates. Handjobs just got a whole lot more interesting.”
Steve laughs with him, though his mind is whirling a bit at the admission that Tony dates men. Last week, Steve could tell himself that it doesn’t matter that he’s interested in Tony, because it probably wouldn’t ever go the other way around. Now, though, there’s a chance, and that’s probably the last thing he needs.
“A ruler can definitely be done,” Steve says, deciding not to respond to the other part. “It’ll take some time, but you’re lucky I’ve got a few hours to spare.”
Tony’s smile widens. “Great.”
In the back, Tony takes a seat while Steve gets to work on the stencil for the tattoo. He measures the length of the outside edge of Tony’s hand. From the tip of the finger down, he has about sixteen centimeters to work with. They work together on the look of the ruler, adjusting the design on Steve’s laptop until it’s the right look. Tony decides on thin black lines every half centimeter with longer lines for each full one, and Steve carefully transfers the finished stencil over to his skin while Tony holds his hand as straight as possible.
“Okay,” Steve says, rolling his chair back a bit to inspect it. “Look good?”
Tony looks at it for a long moment, then places his hand back on the table with a grin. “My dad is going to kill me when he sees this.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“Could go either way, really,” Tony shrugs while Steve readies the tattoo gun. “It’s always fun to watch him lose his shit.”
“That’s not why you’re getting these, though, right?” Steve asks, trying to keep the concern out of his voice. He’s had that type of client before, and they always worry him. People don’t usually end up happy with the choices they make out of spite.
Tony rolls his eyes, grin still in place, “No, it’s just an added bonus. He doesn’t even know about the first one yet.”
Steve starts on the tattoo, and Tony’s wince is noticeable, but not as much as the first time. He holds Tony’s hand steady with one of his own, and he doesn’t let himself think for more than a second about the warmth of Tony’s skin through his gloves.
“And I take it you still like that one?”
Tony rolls up his right sleeve by pushing it against his thigh, and Steve pauses his work to look at it. Messy handwriting fills each of the lines and some of the skin beneath, covering him in complicated looking math.
“I’ve used it every day, and my friends pretend to hate it, but I think they’re just mad they didn’t think of it first.”
“Oh, I’m sure that’s it,” Steve says lightly, making Tony laugh.
“It absolutely is.”
Steve hums, and the conversation pauses for a moment while he focuses on keeping his lines perfectly straight. When he stops to get more ink, he asks, “Did you tell your friends you were getting this one?”
“No, I didn’t really want the input,” Tony says with a shake of his head. “According to someone I know, the only thing that matters is if I like the design.”
Steve smiles, “Wow, they sound wise.”
“I plan on making you tell me your actual thoughts on the ones I’m getting, you know.”
“Yeah? How do you plan on accomplishing that?”
Tony shrugs with one shoulder, clearly careful not to jostle the hand Steve is working on. “I’m a genius. I’ll work it out.”
Steve raises an eyebrow. “An actual genius or just an arrogant sort of smart guy?”
It startles a laugh out of him, and Steve turns a little red. He’s usually better at controlling his mouth around clients, but Tony is so easy to talk to that he finds himself forgetting.
“An actual genius,” Tony grins. “Though I understand why it would be hard to believe that the guy that turned his wrist into a notebook is the same guy who’s only a semester away from getting his PhD.”
Steve lifts the gun up from Tony’s skin to look at him with a frown. “You’re twenty one.”
“I’m aware of that, yeah.”
“You’re getting a PhD at twenty one,” Steve repeats, struggling to wrap his head around that while Tony’s amusement only grows.
“In electrical engineering and computer science,” Tony says, casually like it isn’t a big deal. “Might follow it up with another in physics after.”
“MIT, I take it?” Steve asks, figuring it’s more likely than anywhere else around them, and Tony nods. “How old were you when you started there?”
Steve goes back to work on the tattoo as he replies, “That’s impressive. Your parents must have been really proud.”
Tony laughs, “Most would be, I’m sure.”
It sounds like they’re headed into personal territory, and Steve is wondering whether or not he should ask when Tony makes the decision for him by continuing. “My mom was, but my dad… He’s one of those hard to impress types. And that’s putting it nicely, really.”
Steve glances up, taking in the slight downturn of Tony’s lips. “I’m sure he’s proud of you in his own way.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Tony says, but it sounds like he’s heard it before and didn’t believe it then, either.
His words linger in the air for a moment, until Steve decides that he really doesn’t like the quiet between them. “Tell me about your engineering projects. You’ve got a thesis you’re working on, right?”
Tony brightens back up like flipping a switch. He straightens in the chair, and his free hand moves rapidly as he starts to talk about the future of clean energy. Steve doesn’t understand much of it, not when he talks technical things, but he likes the way Tony sounds. There’s excitement in his voice that reminds him of himself when he’s talking about art, or Natasha when she talks about dancing. He wants to keep it there, so when Tony slows and bites his lip to say, “Sorry, you probably don’t want to hear all of this. I can get carried away sometimes, I know,” Steve doesn’t hesitate to reply, “No, keep going. I want to hear it.”
Tony smiles again, a little shy, “You really don’t have to listen to it. I mean, I know I’m paying you, but you can tell me to shut up.”
“You are paying me,” Steve concedes, “but I’d be interested even if you weren’t. Promise.”
“Yeah? You’d be one of the first.”
Steve pauses his movement with the tattoo gun for a second, but Tony’s back on a roll before he can even say anything. Eventually Steve stops hearing the words themselves, falling into a lull with the vibration of the tattoo gun in his hands, black ink replacing the purple of his stencil as Tony tells him about the progress he made last night on his project.
“Did you even go to bed at all before you came in here?” Steve asks, the tattoo nearly done at this point.
Tony grins, “Sleep is overrated.”
“I’m not so sure that’s true.”
“The best ideas always come at the end of an all-nighter, don’t you know that?”
Steve tilts his chin to point to a scar on Tony’s forearm that he now knows came from a blowtorch when he was thirteen. “Gonna take a wild guess and say that the injuries come at that same time.”
“It’s a coin flip sometimes,” Tony shrugs, smile still in place. “But are you really going to tell me that you’ve never found it easier to think in the middle of the night? When it’s just you and whatever you’re working on? Nothing around to distract you, no pressure from anyone looking over your shoulder.”
“No expectations,” Steve says, nodding slowly. “I know what you mean. Art always feels easier at night. Doesn’t matter if it turns out like shit, because no one’s seeing it.”
Tony’s eyes trail over the drawings tacked to the wall. “I don’t believe that you’re capable of drawing something that turns out like shit.”
“Trust me, I am. Can’t even tell you how many times I’ve had a design in my head that I thought would be really good, and then it was terrible on paper. I’m just glad those ended up in the trash before someone could see them.”
Tony hums, “I once thought I figured out how to prove string theory, but then I woke up surrounded by empty NyQuil bottles and realized it was just a fever dream.”
Steve laughs, reaching behind himself to grab a towel to wipe away the excess ink from Tony’s hand. “Now that would have been something for your thesis. Guess you’ll have to settle for revolutionizing the world with clean energy instead.”
“I don’t know about revolutionizing the whole world,” Tony says, voice going softer and cheeks turning pink. There’s a self-conscious look about him, and Steve melts a little inside. “Just trying to make any difference at all, really.”
“You will,” Steve says firmly.
Tony rolls his eyes with a smile, growing redder. “You hardly know me.”
“And yet I’m already convinced.”
Tony falls silent, though Steve doesn’t mind the quiet much this time. It feels comfortable between them while Steve works on the last couple of lines on the tattoo. He fills in the small gaps, running his gloved thumb over the tattoo to check for any others, and then he’s done.
Wiping away the last of the smeared ink, he asks, “So, what do you think?”
Tony lifts his hand and stares intently at it, twisting it like he did with the other one. Then he grins, “Perfect. I’ll never need a ruler again.”
“Worth the fact that your dad is going to kill you?” Steve teases as he applies a thin layer of ointment over the side of Tony’s hand, and Tony laughs.
“Absolutely worth it.”
Steve pulls off his gloves and rolls his chair away, leaning back against the wall. “And how soon can I expect you for the next one?”
Tony smirks, and even though he still has the tired appearance to him, his eyes are brighter than when he first walked in. He swings his legs off the chair, stretching his arms above his head and exposing a small expanse of pale skin that Steve has to try hard to look away from.
“Not long. I’ve got a list.”
Steve stands, leading Tony back out to the front of the building and looking back at him with raised eyebrows. “A list, huh?”
“A long list of practical tattoos that will help me forever, yes,” Tony says.
He leans against the front of the counter while Steve moves behind it. They deal with the payment, and Steve notices this time when he tries to give him a much too large tip.
“You’re aware that this is a hundred percent tip, right?” Steve asks, staring at the stack of bills in his hands. “And last time you left a two hundred percent tip?”
Tony frowns, standing on his toes to look over the counter. “I could have sworn I put another fifty in there.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls his wallet back out, but Steve stops him before another bill can land in his hands.
“What? No,” Steve protests. “That’s actually insane. I’m trying to tell you that you’re tipping way too much, not that you didn’t tip enough this time.”
“Oh,” Tony says, frown clearing away as he drops back down to the flats of his feet. “It’s not too much if you deserve it, and I’ve decided that you deserve it.”
Steve opens his mouth to object again, but Tony starts walking backwards towards the door with a smile. “Nope, don’t tell me that you don’t. It’s nice and all, but you’re keeping it. Or hell, don’t keep it. Go give it to someone else if you want to, but either way I’m not taking it back.”
Steve shakes his head while Tony stumbles into the door, grinning despite himself. “Next one I’m doing for free.”
Tony laughs as he manages to get the door open behind him, “Next one I’m going to hide the money when you’re not looking.”
Two weeks is all it takes for Tony to come back in, just barely healed from his last one and apparently already onto the next. He walks in looking a little better than last time. His hair is a little shorter, the mess looking more purposeful, and the bags under his eyes have lightened up. He has a smile on from the moment he walks in and makes eye contact with Steve, who’s wrapping up an appointment with another client. Steve smiles back and almost forgets to hand over the list of care instructions to the girl in front of him as he trails off near the end of his sentence. She probably thinks he’s impolite when he forgets to even say goodbye to her.
“Hi again,” Tony grins, walking into the shop with an air of confidence that seems to be growing each time he comes in. He walks like he belongs here, and Steve likes it a little more than he should. Likes Tony a little more than he should.
“You’re back sooner than I thought,” Steve says. “Really can’t get enough of them, can you?”
Tony runs a hand through his hair, black ink ruler moving through the dark strands. His voice is teasing as he says, “Maybe I just really like needles.”
“I know you’re joking, but that really is a thing for some people.”
Tony laughs, “Are you serious? Please tell me that’s not a thing.”
“It’s absolutely a thing.”
“People are weird,” Tony sighs, shaking his head. “So do you have the time to give me another one right now?”
Steve glances over at his appointment calendar. He knows it’s empty, but that’s because he was supposed to leave in a bit. Friday afternoons are for catching up on errands and all the things that slip through the cracks during the long days he spends at the shop. He looks back at Tony, though, and knows that his fridge can stay barren for a little longer.
“I’ve got my schedule clear for a bit.”
“Perfect. I want chaos theory.”
Steve raises his eyebrows, “You want what?”
“Chaos theory. Can’t say I use the formula much, but I’ve always liked the name.” Tony sticks his wrist out, and Steve looks at the formula written on one of the lines there while Tony grins proudly. “Look, I even wrote it down.”
“Still practical,” Steve laughs. “But don’t you have this one memorized, being a PhD student and all?”
“Yeah, sure, but like I said, it’s got a fun name,” Tony shrugs while Steve leads him to the back. As he settles into the chair, Tony adds a little softer, “I guess I like the idea that everything can be explained. It’s not completely what it means, but it’s about explaining things that seem unpredictable but aren’t.”
Steve smiles, sitting down to get to work on printing a stencil for the formula. “Sentimental and practical then. Good combination.”
Tony hums in response, and Steve starts on the stencil. They go through font options together, and once they’ve picked one out, Steve asks, “So where is this one going?”
Instead of responding, Tony sits up straighter and reaches for the hem of his sweatshirt. The heavy fabric gets tossed to an empty chair in the corner, leaving Steve at eye level with Tony’s bare chest. His mouth goes dry, and Steve swallows hard as he forces himself to look away from the dusting of dark hair trailing downwards.
Instead he watches the way Tony slowly trails a finger above his collarbone on his left side, close to the hollow of his throat.
“Right about here.” His voice has dropped down lower, and Steve would swear he’s doing it on purpose, especially when he doesn’t drop his finger away from the spot for a long while.
The sound of voices in the next room is what finally breaks the moment, reminding Steve where they are and what he should be doing. He jolts back up on his stool and blinks a few times to clear the sight from his eyes. Tony’s smirk says that he knows exactly where Steve’s thoughts are, but he doesn’t comment on the way Steve’s face is rapidly turning crimson.
Steve is proud of the fact that his voice sounds nearly normal when he asks, “And how big did you want it to be?”
Tony’s smile twists like he’s holding in a laugh, and Steve notices the way that sentence sounds a bit too late. “A couple inches long, I guess. That’s not my general standard, though.”
Steve swallows again, resisting the urge to follow that line of conversation for as long as he possibly can and instead turning back to the computer to print off the stencil. “I think about three inches should be good for the text. Lines won’t blur together that way.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Steve gets up to retrieve the stencil, and he spends the brief time he’s away from Tony trying to prepare himself for the next twenty minutes where he’ll have his hands on his chest. He doesn’t let clients have an effect on him - not like this. He’s seen a thousand bares chests, both men and women, even ones that are technically nicer built than Tony’s. The six foot bodybuilder that was in three weeks ago didn’t even get his heart rate up, not after all of his years of doing this. There’s no real explanation for why Tony has this effect on him, except for maybe that it feels like there could be a real chance with him. He certainly didn’t seem to mind Steve’s eyes lingering on him, that’s for sure.
He takes a deep breath before walking back in the room, determined to be a professional even if it kills him. Tony is stretched out on the chair now when he walks in, left arm underneath his head to expose even more of his skin to Steve’s eyes. His muscles are flexed with the position, and Steve notices for the first time just how toned Tony’s biceps are. It’s a bit unexpected with everything else Steve has learned about him, but not at all unwelcome.
Steve takes a seat again, wheeling his stool over to Tony’s side. He applies the stencil with careful hands, then prepares the tattoo gun and ink.
The scent of Tony’s deodorant hits his nose as he leans in close to start the tattoo, filling his senses with something woodsy and masculine. It mixes with something else, cologne maybe, to create a heady combination that Steve doesn’t mind at all.
He works in silence for a bit, feeling the slight rise and fall of Tony’s slow breathing where he has to lean against him. Tony breaks the quiet by asking, “What are the ones of your arm for? I mean, you know what all of mine mean. It’s only fair that I know yours, too.”
Steve pauses to get more ink, and when he turns back, he straightens his arm out to show the row of symbols more clearly.
“They’re for my friends. The star is for my friend Bucky, who I grew up with. The ballet shoes are for Natasha, who’s currently in the room next to us putting a piercing in someone’s septum, but she also dances whenever she can. The wings are for Sam. He’s in the Air Force as a pararescueman, so it’s been a while since I’ve actually seen him. And the arrow is for my friend Clint. He teaches archery to rich kids and makes a lot more than you’d think from it.”
Tony smiles, “And what about the one on your upper arm? Looks like Sagittarius to me.”
“You know constellations on sight?” Steve asks, the corner of his mouth quirking into a smile. “Why am I even asking? Of course you do.”
The laugh that comes from Tony is wonderfully bright. “I had an astronomy phase as a kid. Now tell me who it’s for.”
Steve leans back in, working on the second half of the formula now. “My mom passed when I was eighteen. I got it for her about a week later as my first piece, right in this shop from the guy that owned it before I bought it. Never thought about being a tattoo artist until that day, actually. Always thought I’d be the guy who had the art dream but had to settle for something more realistic. This is kind of like both.”
“Kind of like fate then,” Tony says, and Steve smiles.
“I like to think of it that way, yeah.”
Tony hums, and after a beat he asks, “And the flowers on your other arm? Those have a meaning, too?”
“I just liked the way those looked. Same with the ones on my chest.”
Tony grins, “Can I convince you to show me those?”
“I don’t think so,” Steve laughs, shaking his head. Something in him makes him feel bold, so he adds on, “Not today, anyway.”
“Oh, really? How many more tattoos do you think it’s going to take for me to convince you?”
“Well, how long is the list of ideas you say you have?”
Tony laughs, “Long enough, I hope.”
Steve looks up from the tattoo taking form on Tony’s chest, a smile on his face. “So do I.”
“How is it that you’re always free when I come in?”
Steve jumps in surprise, accidentally drawing a line straight through the center of the tree on the page of his sketchpad. He looks up to see dark eyes watching him with amusement.
Steve smiles back and sets his sketch to the side. “Hey there. What is it this time? Also, do you ever think about making an appointment?”
Tony laughs, fishing a piece of paper out of his pocket, “A bunch of numbers, and no, I don’t.”
Steve reaches for the wrinkled paper that Tony hands him, their fingers brushing, and reads it. Eyebrows raised, he asked, “Is this pi?”
“Part of it, yeah.”
“Nerd,” Steve says, and it’s laced with a little too much affection.
Tony’s grin widens impossibly further. “You’re not allowed to pass judgment. You told me so yourself.”
“Technically, that’s a personal rule, and personal rules can be broken at personal discretion.”
“So you do think my tattoos are stupid,” Tony says teasingly. “I knew I’d get you to tell me one day, and here it is.”
They start walking to the back without even discussing it as Steve says, “Hey, I never said that. But I do think this one breaks the practicality theme just a little. I mean, when do you actually need pi to ten digits?”
Tony takes a seat, and Steve doesn’t have quite the same visceral reaction when he leans forward to take his shirt off, but his heart definitely skips a beat or two. “You mean you don’t calculate things in your head using pi every day?”
Steve laughs, and the light hearted conversation continues while he does the work of designing the stencil and getting it printed. It ends up just above the waistline of Tony’s jeans on his right side. Tony’s stomach is warm under his arm as he leans in, and this angle gives him too good of a perspective of what it might be like to actually touch him outside of the shop. What it would be like to be on his knees for him, or between his legs in bed. He breathes a little harder at the thought and hopes Tony doesn’t notice. Knowing him, he probably does.
“So, do you want to hear about how I almost burned down my lab yesterday?”
Steve starts the tattoo gun while Tony starts the story, and he purposely takes his time with the lines. He stops more frequently than he needs to, lingers with his fingers on Tony’s skin, all to keep Tony talking to him just a little longer.
Steve is scanning the ID of a James Rhodes when Tony walks through the door a couple of weeks later, pushing sunglasses up and into messy hair.
He’s opening his mouth to say hello to him when James beats him to the punch. “Only five minutes late, Tones. You really are into this guy.”
Tony laughs, flushing a bit, “Can’t be late when you don’t have an appointment, anyway.”
“And you never have one,” Steve says, looking between the two of them as Tony walks further in. He slings his arm around James, directing his smile Steve’s way.
“No, but he does, so that counts for something, right?”
“I take it you two know each other,” Steve says, even though it’s quite obvious that they do. His eyes shift between them again, taking in the way James’s hand has come up to rest on Tony’s shoulder. There’s hardly any distance at all between them, bodies touching from shoulder to hip with a relaxed posture that Steve isn’t sure what to think of. More than knowing each other, but Steve can’t tell just how far it goes between them. He bites his lip as he pulls his eyes away from their multiple points of contact.
Tony is looking back at him with a strange expression when he meets his eyes again. “This is Rhodey. I think I’ve mentioned him a few times.”
Steve looks back down at the ID in his hand, which he really should have given back already. James Rhodes . “Oh,” Steve says weakly. He clears his throat and tries again while finally handing it back to him. “Yeah, you have mentioned him. Heard you weren’t a big fan of his notebook tattoo.”
James laughs, “No, but it fits him well, doesn’t it? Just the kind of stupid shit that’s perfect for him.”
“Steve thinks it’s stupid, too, but he refuses to admit it,” Tony grins and winks at him, and Steve’s stomach does a swooping thing. Even though he’s talking to James, he doesn’t take his eyes off of Steve for a second. “I’ll get him to one day, I swear.”
Steve laughs, “Not a chance.”
James rolls his eyes, “Alright, I can’t stand watching whatever this is for another second. Do you have time to give Tony the same tattoo as me?”
Steve nods, straightening up to lead them both into the back, “Yeah, shouldn’t take much time. Same place, too?”
“Well, I tried to convince him to get a neck tattoo, but he refuses, so ankle it is,” Tony says, and Steve can hear the smile in his voice without looking.
“Please never give him a face tattoo if he asks for one,” James deadpans as they enter the back room.
“I have a policy against those, so no worries there. He’d have to go somewhere else for that.”
Tony drapes himself across the chair in the corner of the room, looking like he belongs there, and laughs, “How can I possibly go anywhere else when you’ve ruined me for all others?”
Steve focuses on getting the stencils printed out so he doesn’t have a chance to think about how that sentence makes him feel. He goes to get them, and when he comes back James is on the chair with the cuff of his jeans rolled up to uncover his ankle. He and Tony are laughing about something, and Tony’s head is tilted so far back with it that it’s hit the wall. Steve catches just a snippet at the end of it, only hearing James as he says, “I swear to God, I’m never going with you to another one of those parties, Tones. Not even if you beg.”
“No, you have to,” Tony whines, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “Who else is going to save me when my mom tries to set me up with some other asshole’s daughter?”
James juts his chin out towards Steve. “Hey, tattoo guy, you wanna get dressed up in an uncomfortable suit and spend five hours dying of boredom and eating weirdly small plates of food at a rich people party? Benefits include hearing Tony lie to everyone he talks to all night. Downsides include literally everything else.”
Tony laughs again, “I don’t lie to everyone. Just the people I don’t like.”
“Which is everyone.”
“Half of them.”
“Every single person.”
“Fine, ninety nine percent of them.”
Another eye roll from James, but Steve isn’t following any of this. He sits down to pull on his gloves and asks, “What exactly are we talking about here?”
“Rhodey is being a mean friend,” Tony says, flopping back in his chair with a pout that shouldn’t be as endearing as it is.
“Tony needs a date for a charity gala next week, and he’s all out of favors with me.”
Steve takes advantage of the conversation to get started on the tattoo while James is distracted by it, holding his ankle steady at the first flinch. James sucks in a sharp breath, fingers clenching tightly on the arm of the chair.
“Fuck, Tones, you said it wasn’t that bad.”
Tony laughs, “It’s not. Guess I’ve just got a higher pain tolerance than you.”
“More like you were too busy ogling the guy with the tattoo gun to notice,” James grumbles, and Steve’s cheeks grow hot.
“So, uh, what’s the meaning of this one?” Steve asks to redirect the conversation. “‘Mens et manus.’”
“It means ‘mind and hand.’”
“MIT motto,” Tony grins. “I convinced him we should have matching tattoos to commemorate our many years together as roommates.”
“I thought he would cry if I didn’t say yes, so here we are,” James says, though it’s clear he’s only joking.
“I would’ve. Big, ugly tears that would have made you feel terrible.”
“I know, I saw them when I said I wouldn’t go to that haunted house with you.”
“In my defense, I was drunk when that happened,” Tony says to Steve, who laughs. “I don’t normally cry when people don’t go to haunted houses with me.”
“But he definitely cries when he gets there. He’s afraid of clowns.”
Tony narrows his eyes. “You slept in my bed for a week after we watched Nightmare on Elm Street. ”
It goes on like that for a while, the two of them taking turns with embarrassing stories that make Steve laugh while he works on James’s tattoo. It continues, too, when James and Tony switch places, and he learns a lot about Tony this way. That he hates the taste of mustard but will do almost anything on a dare, and he learned how to drive in James’s car in a high school parking lot in Philadelphia. He’s clingy when he’s sick or sleep-deprived, and Steve can’t help but think that he wouldn’t mind at all to be on the receiving end of that.
When they’re done, James tells an obvious lie about needing to answer a phone call and leaves him and Tony alone in the back while he walks up front. Tony moves forward in the tattoo chair, his knees bumping against Steve’s. And if Steve purposely adjusts his position to be pressed more firmly against him, no one will know but them, anyway.
“So this one definitely didn’t fit the theme.”
Tony smiles, “Well, you were right about the last one being a stretch. Turns out there’s not that many practical things I could get tattooed.”
“Might not be practical, but it’s a good one.” Steve reaches his hand out, trailing his thumb just below the freshly tattooed skin on Tony’s exposed ankle. He keeps his hand there a while longer, watching the way Tony’s throat moves when he swallows. “Did your last one heal alright?”
“Trying to get me to take my shirt off?” Tony teases.
“Maybe,” Steve shrugs shamelessly, though he has no idea where the confidence came from. Perhaps from the fact that James all but confirmed that he’s been on Tony’s mind as much as Tony has been on his.
Tony leans back a bit, lifting up the edge of his shirt to show the black ink on his hip bone. “Perfectly healed.”
Steve touches this one, too, with the tips of his fingers, and Tony’s skin rises in bumps beneath them. He never thought it would be a thing for him, to see his work on someone else like this. People walk out of here every day with his drawings on them, and it’s never done anything for him before. But something about knowing his hands put the ink into Tony’s skin makes him want to touch him even more.
He pulls back with reluctance to say, “We should probably head back up front. I don’t think fake phone calls last very long.”
Tony laughs, sliding off the chair to stand right in front of Steve, “He’s not the best actor, is he?”
“His phone didn’t even ring.”
Steve is part way through putting a butterfly on someone’s thigh when Natasha knocks on the frame of his open door and jerks her head to call him over. He turns off the gun, murmuring a quick apology to the girl in his tattoo chair, and walks to her.
“Why is Tony Stark in our shop, and why is he so insistent on waiting for you to get his tattoo done?” she asks, eyebrows raised.
Steve’s mood goes from neutral to pleasant in one sentence. “Oh, uh, can you tell him that I’ll be done in about an hour?”
Her eyebrows go even closer to her hairline. “You answered neither of my questions. There’s a billionaire sitting in our thrift store chairs. Why?”
“What? He’s not - he’s a PhD student. What are you talking about?”
Natasha gives him a look that calls him an idiot without saying a word. “Stark Industries, Steve. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.”
He has heard of it, and things start to click suddenly. Like Tony being a literal genius with a somehow unimpressed father. The familiarity of the name that first day, and the way Tony tensed up when Steve knew it without an introduction. The ridiculous tip amounts, which really should have given it away if nothing else did.
Natasha laughs at what must be a dumbstruck expression on Steve’s face. “So how many tattoos have you given him without knowing?”
“Five,” Steve admits. “There, um, may have been some flirting, too. Or a lot of flirting, actually.”
If she’s surprised, she doesn’t show it. The only change in her expression is a slight quirk of her lips, and she asks, “On both sides?” At Steve’s nod, she turns on her heel and says over her shoulder, “I’ll tell him you’ll be done soon.”
It’s about forty minutes later when he’s finally done with his client, and Natasha takes care of the payment process with her to free him up faster. She sends Tony right into the back, and Steve grins at the sight of him. His shirt has the first two buttons undone, falling open to show off the formula on his collarbone, and the sleeves are pushed up to the elbow to reveal the writing-filled lines on his wrist.
“Hey,” Steve says. “Sorry about the wait.”
Tony shrugs, a smile on his face as he walks further in to sit on the edge of the chair, “Well, as much as I would love it if you were just sitting around waiting for me to walk in, I am aware that other people actually make appointments sometimes.”
“You could try it, too,” Steve teases.
“And ruin our thing? Definitely not.”
Steve laughs, “So what can I do for you this time?”
Tony surprises him by pointing to one of the drawings on his wall. It’s a sketch of the New York skyline, drawn from the roof of the apartment building he grew up in as a kid. The tops of the buildings start in solid black and fade away into gray. It’s one of his favorite drawings of his, but he’s never put it on anyone before.
“I’ve been looking at that one since the first time I walked in.”
Steve stands from his stool and gently takes the drawing off the wall, careful not to fold the tape over the edge. “Since the first time, huh?”
Tony nods, and Steve takes it to scan to turn into a stencil. He comes back to Tony with half of his shirt off, one arm out of the sleeve. Rolling his stool over, he holds up the stencil to the part of Tony’s arm that he’s holding out. It curves along the upper part of his bicep, and Tony smiles when Steve holds up a mirror for him to verify the spot.
Steve pulls on his gloves, getting everything ready, and while he does, he asks, “How’s the thesis been going? Almost done, right?”
Tony groans, head falling back against the chair, “Don’t even ask.”
“That bad, huh?”
“I’m thinking about quitting and running away to join the carnival instead. I’ll use my physics knowledge to rig games. No one will ever win a thing.”
Steve laughs, “That sounds like a solid backup plan. Although I think there’s about a million places who would hire a genius with a Masters degree other than the carnival.”
“But where’s the fun in that?”
Steve hums as he fills in the tip of the Empire State Building. “Want to talk about your thesis? I can’t really help, but sometimes it’s good just to talk, right?”
Tony smiles, “Maybe another time. I think it might be better just to get my mind off of it. Tell me something about you instead.”
“About me? What do you want to know?”
Tony shifts in the chair, careful not to move his arm in the process, and his head tilts to look more directly at Steve. “Anything. I mean, the more embarrassing the better, seeing as you now know about the time I ate shaving cream on accident.”
“Want to hear about the blind date my friends set me up on last month?”
“Please tell me it was horrible. I could really use the laugh.”
“He showed up twenty minutes late and then spent the next fifteen on the phone with his ex.”
Tony grins, “Fantastic. Keep going.”
Steve spends the next hour telling any story that pops into his head, trying to keep Tony laughing. He tells him things that most people don’t know about, things he wouldn’t even normally share on dates. He ends up talking a lot about growing up in Brooklyn, and he gets a few stories from Tony about being in Manhattan in return.
As he’s finishing the last steps and wiping away the extra traces of ink from Tony’s arm, he says, “So, uh, can I be honest with you about something?”
Tony raises an eyebrow. “I’m not sure anyone has ever started anything good with that question, but sure.”
Steve laughs, “No, it’s not bad. I just, um, I didn’t know who you were until today. Stark Industries. I didn’t know until Natasha told me.”
“Yeah, I kind of figured, actually. Either that or you’re one of maybe three people I’ve met who knew and genuinely didn’t care.”
“Well, I still don’t really care,” Steve says, and then he realizes how that sounds. “Not like - not like that. I just, I mean that it doesn’t change anything.”
Tony smiles softly, “Good.”
Steve rolls his chair back, reluctantly standing up. Tony stands with him, buttoning his shirt back up, and they hover in the doorway. Another client is coming in soon, and as much as he wants to drag this out, he really can’t. But he also hates the idea of needing to wait until Tony comes back for another tattoo to see him again.
“I was thinking, though, that maybe you could come back on Friday at around six,” Steve says. “I won’t have any clients then.”
Tony gives him a curious look, “I don’t know if I’ll have another tattoo idea by then.”
“I know, but maybe you could come anyway.”
It takes a moment for Tony to get what he’s saying. A long moment where Steve thinks that he should have said something else, should have been clearer or maybe not said anything at all. But then a slow smile stretches across his face.
“Yeah, maybe I could.”
“And maybe I could finally show you the ones on my chest,” Steve offers, just for the way Tony’s smile turns mischievous.
Tony leans in, and his lips are soft when they briefly press against Steve’s. He chases them when they’re gone, and Tony lets him until neither of them can breathe.
Tony pulls away first, walking backwards down the hall with a grin, “I’ll see you on Friday.”